The Preacher’s Craft

As I travel around the Grand Rapids District on Sunday mornings, I hear comments from laity about preaching.  Staff Parish Relations Committees invariably tell me that the most important quality their congregation needs in a pastor is good preaching.  It is clear that preaching is seen as a primary, if not the primary task of a local church pastor.  Lay persons expect pastors to preach well.

As a matter of fact, I’ve rarely met a pastor who didn’t think he or she was a good preacher.  That’s where pastors and lay persons differ.  In 1993 the pollster George Barna’s research showed that while 44% of congregations rated their pastor’s preaching as excellent, 81% of pastors rated themselves as excellent.  When people are asked why they leave a church, many cite mediocre preaching.  Unfortunately, some clergy have an unrealistic image of their preaching prowess.  We think that all we need to do is put on our fancy headset, pace back and forth, become a talking head, throw in a few jokes, and we’re an effective pulpiteer. 

What SPRC committees hope for is preaching that connects the biblical narrative to their everyday life, speaking “from the heart,” and sermons that help them become better disciples of Jesus Christ.  What lay persons don’t care for is lifeless sermons, poorly prepared preachers, rambling from the pulpit, and sermons that are not relevant to the issues and concerns they face in their work, family, and spiritual life.

The goal of preaching is spiritual formation and transformation, as we guide parishioners into an encounter with God and the world.  Preaching is intentional and individual.  Preaching is also an art, demanding creativity, imagination, and practice.  So do it well!  Laity lament when their pastors take short-cuts, rely too much upon internet resources, or seem disconnected.  On the other hand, laity express high praise and thanksgiving for pastors who actively engage them in the power of the Word of God in a way that is persuasive and elicits a response.

Preaching is the most challenging task of ministry.  I have only the utmost respect and admiration for pastors who prepare and deliver sermons week after week after week.  In 3 previous essays, I addressed the preacher’s poise, the preacher’s life, and the preacher’s audience.  Today I invite us to think about the art of crafting a creative and compelling sermon.

  • Will you preach from the lectionary, use sermon series, or employ a combination of both? 

Many preachers prefer the lectionary because, over the long haul, the prescribed scriptures present the fullness of the Bible.  The lectionary also forces us to work with difficult passages and avoid the temptation of using our favorite texts over and over.  Other preachers are convinced that sermon series are a better way to engage congregations in biblical narratives that directly impact the life of a congregation at a particular time.  Lectionary study groups are especially helpful as preachers encounter the text together.

More often than I’d like, I hear people judge a pastor by whether the sermon is “biblical” or not.  I confess that I’ve never really understood what they mean by “preaching from the Bible.”  It may refer to confusion over whether pastors use as their starting point the text or the topic, the biblical narrative or the human condition.  The reality is that biblical content without contemporary relevance does not connect, and topical preaching without engagement with scripture is empty.

  • What preaching style will you choose?
    • Will you preach in a more traditional style or use a teaching style where you walk the congregation through a biblical text verse by verse?
    • Will you use a manuscript, notes, an outline, or memorize your sermon?
    • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles.  I decided over 20 years ago that I was a more effective communicator when I did not read my sermon.  I have always disciplined myself to write a manuscript so that I can properly think through and express my thoughts.  However, every time I choose to preach without that manuscript I am still petrified!
    • Outstanding preachers use all of the above styles.  The key is not the style but focused preparation and connecting with the congregation.  There are no shortcuts to good preaching.
  • How will you prepare?
  • I can’t emphasize enough the importance of long range sermon planning so that preaching coordinates with the rest of congregational life.  Pick your sermon themes and scriptures 6 months to a year ahead of time.  (The Holy Spirit works that far ahead as well!)
  • Have a file in your computer for each sermon so that as you read and go about your life, the scriptures will be in your subconscious, and you can record notes and reflections.  If you only work a week ahead, you may miss the perfect sermon illustration, which was in Sports Illustrated 3 weeks ago.
  • There are endless resources on the Internet.  Resist the temptation to “borrow” large chunks of the sermons of others.  Cite your sources rather than pass off others’ work as your own.
  • Set aside enough time for research and writing.  Do you have a weekly routine?  Where and when do you work on your sermon?  Put in the time! 
  • Always keep in front of you the “so what?” question.  When the congregation leaves, how do you hope they will be convicted and transformed? 
  • Creativity within the sermon itself

Because we live in a fast-paced society with high expectations for public speaking, and because people have different learning styles, we must find ways to make our sermons interesting.  I am not talking about gimmicks, but we can use technology and other forms of creativity to enhance the message.

  • Have you tried video clips, singing, poetry, drama, dance, first person sermons, video interviews/testimonies, signing, or asking an artist to paint, weave, make pottery, or sculpt during the sermon?
  • How about interacting directly with the congregation, or planting people in the congregation to give responses during the sermon or ask questions?
  • Some preachers use powerpoint slides, sermon outlines, or “fill in the blanks” in the bulletin to reinforce the message.  Be careful, however, that people are not so intent on writing or focusing on the screen that they miss the big picture.
  • The role of the rest of the worship service

In a well constructed worship service, everything fits together.  The theme for the day should be reinforced by the sermon as well as the music, prayers, liturgy, and children’s time.  People can only remember one thing from a sermon/worship experience.  What do you want that one thing to be?

Form a worship design team to collaboratively plan every aspect of the worship service, including the prelude, call to worship, announcements, dance, drama, hymns, visuals, creative presentations of the scripture, choir anthems, sung responses, various forms of prayer, and testimonies.

Don’t forget the Response to the Word or Invitation to Christian Discipleship.  Every Sunday we are called to respond to what we have heard and experienced in worship and preaching.  It could be a testimony, unison response, song, communion, baptismal renewal, the offering, healing prayers, or an altar call.  If you don’t ask for a response, you may not get one!

Here are my top 10 preaching tips.

  1. There is no one way to preach.  Find the style that enables you to be most effective.
  2. Too much exegesis can become boring, and too much of yourself is not appropriate.
  3. Stories can be helpful because people remember them, but make sure they illustrate the heart of the sermon.
  4. Don’t wing it.  Believe me, we can tell.
  5. Teaching instructs.  Preaching transforms.  Don’t forget to preach even as you teach.
  6. Be organized.  Know where you are going with your sermon, then go there!
  7. Preaching comes from the heart.  Give your entire being to the task.
  8. Always preach for response.
  9. Seek feedback on your preaching so that you can continuously improve.  Lay persons, we value your gentle, constructive input, but please don’t unload on us right after church.  The sermon is still too fresh for us to hear what you are saying.
  10. The fact that people who have dozens of other options get up early on Sunday morning to come to worship is both amazing and awe-inspiring.  There is no greater privilege than sharing God’s word with those who are hungry to encounter the living God.  Feed them.

Blessings, Laurie

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